By Michael Gunther

Over the last few years, you couldn’t open a management journal or attend a conference without finding a discussion about the perils of poor employee engagement in the workplace. Gallup Organization’s well-publicized engagement survey report, along with an employee group reeling from a post-recession hangover, has helped fuel this discussion. With employee engagement currently standing at 31.5% (, workplace leaders have a long way to go in actually creating work environments that are engaging a majority of their employees. Could you imagine the results you could achieve if you had at least 51% of your employees engaged with your business and goals?

There have been many organizations and startups attempting to solve these engagement issues. There are now “happiness” and “engagement” apps and software tools. There are numerous training programs, case studies and articles providing guidance on how to improve engagement. Yet, less than a third of employees are engaged. So what is missing? Why are employees still disengaged after years of trying to enhance or improve engagement? Are managers attempting to solve these issues with the latest fad program or tool without assessing or understanding the true causes of the lack in engagement?

I believe you have to look at employee engagement from a holistic approach. It isn’t just about creating ‘happy’ employees or measuring their ‘engagement.’ It isn’t about sending your managers out to learn how to create engaged employees. To me, it is about learning how to be an effective leader and manager (I purposely separated these two areas because the most effective individuals need skills and abilities in both areas – but that is an entirely different topic). Engagement is a piece of that process, and developing a solid work team requires other core elements. 

I’m curious about how a successful leader engages employees effectively. We have worked with nearly a thousand organizations and thousands of leaders over 20 years, so I asked my team to begin analyzing and researching the elements that leaders and teams exhibited within our most successful clients.  There was no surprise in learning that the successful teams all had a similar trait – a solid relationship between the leader and their team. Whether it is a leader of an organization or a leader of a department, at the end of the day, it was about relationships built on trust.

This simple statement got us even more curious, so my team and I began researching further to understand how trust is gained or broken between great leaders and their team. What critical elements are the foundation for building or breaking trust within the work environment?

Another complexity around trust rose to the top: a shift in the workplace expectations of the millennial generation. Earlier generations were taught not to trust others and take care of yourself and yet, new generations have a desire for a collaborative approach. There is an expressed need for transparency and access to information, as these millennials have grown up as part of a digital, social media driven environment. We found individuals wanted leaders who are authentic and drive impactful and purposeful collaboration. They craved super teams instead of super stars, and more flexibility, mobility and connectedness; yet, our systems and management structures are hierarchical and set up specifically for super stars to emerge.

We believe leaders must begin to shift their perceptions and expectations of others, as well as themselves, to start operating from a place of collaboration. Leaders need to understand how to have collaborative conversations with their teams and peers. This is about shifting how you manage and hold people accountable as adults. This requires you as a leader to be humble, vulnerable and transparent while possessing the skills to create environments for tough conversations, facilitate growth and collaboration. These elements build trust, which in turn build engagement.

Bottom Line

 When elements that build trust are missing, it causes challenges such as turnover, burnout and unrealized potential of a team. Through our research and real world application, we determined that leaders need to understand what is working and what is not with their teams in relation to trust —  and not just whether they are ‘happy’ or ‘engaged.’

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